The Malaysian State of Sarawak is located on the northwest of the island of Borneo, just north of the equator. It is the largest state in the Malaysian Federation, covering almost 125,000 square km.
Most of Sarawak is below 180m in altitude. But this is a misleading figure - there are plenty of hills and valleys, and much of the interior, including the whole border with Indonesia, is mountainous.
There are plenty of small hills and mountains surrounding Kuching, reaching up to about 900m. Many of these are climbable. Around Miri, both Niah and Lambir Hills are small peaks of about 300 and 450m, while Mount Mulu is a respectable 2376m (Mulu was long thought to be the highest peak in Sarawak, but is in fact the second highest, after the nearby Mount Murud, at 2423m.) See our Trek Locations page for a map showing where these places are in Sarawak.
Most of the treks described in this website therefore involve some ups and downs, although this is generally technically easy, with some including built walkways and stairs. However, there are also plenty of more challenging and technically difficult climbs on offer as well.
Sarawak also has some significant rivers, such as the mighty Rejang; and much travel to and from the interior is still done by boat (to get to some towns, such as Kapit, a boat up the Rejang is the only way). Most of Sarawak is covered by rainforest, although the best patches are in the national parks, where it is protected from logging and poaching.
|Climate & Weather
Because of Sarawak's proximity to the equator, it not surprisingly has a tropical climate. This means that, unlike in temperate regions, it does not have four seasons.
Temperatures are generally fairly constant, averaging between 22-33 C (72-93 F) all year round. However, it may get quite cool up in mountains such as Mulu.
Humidity & Rainfall
Humidity is high (usually around 80%), and there is high rainfall all year round - although this usually comes in short, heavy bursts of an hour or so during the afternoon - it can be clear and sunny the rest of the day! The Kuching region tends to have higher annual rainfall than the areas around Miri.
The climate is monsoonal, and there is a wet season (called Landas - an Iban term) between November and February, when there is higher and more constant rainfall. This can make hiking difficult and possibly uncomfortable, particularly if climbing is involved. Flooding can also occur during the wet season, making it hard to access some areas; and it can be difficult to reach Bako and Tanjung Datu National Parks (which require boat trips) because the seas become choppy. The wet season is most pronounced on the coastal areas.
Best Times of Year for Trekking
The best times of year for trekking are therefore March to August and October - November (there may be problems with haze from forest fires and clearing in Kalimantan during August-September).
Checking Weather Conditions
To check the current weather, visit the Malaysian Bureau of Meteorology website, which provides weather conditions and forecasts for major cities - and several national parks as well.
There is evidence of human habitation in Sarawak going back over 40,000 years. This was uncovered in the Niah caves. These caves also contain archaeological evidence of periodic use ever since then - and they remain inhabited today. (See the Niah National Park page for further information.) It is thought that some of Sarawak's indigenous peoples, such as the Penan, may be descended from some of Niah's original inhabitants.
Excavations in other parts of Sarawak, most notably at Santubong, give an indication of the more recent historical peopling of the area. It is believed that Sarawak's Malays came from Sumatra or Java, first settling some of the coastal areas by the 8th Century. This occurred under the Sumatran Sri Vijayan Empire and/or the Javanese Majapahit kingdom, so these Malays were primarily Hindu and Buddhist. A number of Hindu and Buddhist sculptures dating from this period have been uncovered at Santubong.
The Malays subsequently adopted Islam through the influence of Indian and Arab traders (and other Muslim Malays) probably starting in the 14th-15th centuries. Briefly in the 15th Century, Sarawak had it's own Sultan, Sultan Tengah, who is now buried at the base of Gunung Santubong. Prior to the coming of the White Rajahs (see below), much of coastal Sarawak fell nominally under the Sultan of Brunei, although his control was often loose, given the power of local pirates.
The Chinese presence in Sarawak has been almost as long as the Malay presence (possibly longer), although it was primarily only a trading presence, with a relatively small population until large migrations in the 19th Century, under the Brookes. Some of the pottery unearthed in Niah is Chinese, dating from the 8th century (possibly already part of a birds nest trade); and it is thought that Chinese traders may already have been visiting Borneo 2000 years ago. Santubong was the centre an important (apparently largely Chinese) iron industry in the 11th-14th centuries. A number of Chinese coins and pottery shards dating from this period have been uncovered there, along with large volumes of iron slag (for a long time thought by locals to be petrified animal droppings!).
Arrival of the Iban
The Iban are on the whole more recent arrivals in Sarawak, although they have been in Borneo for a very long time. Certain Iban traditions place their origin in what is now Cambodia; however, they migrated into Sarawak from the South - from what is now Kalimantan. This migration was primarily in the 16th to 19th Centuries, but internal Iban northward migration continued well into the 20th Century (for example, the Iban now form the significant majority of the population around Niah, but were not present there before the 1930s). The Iban and other Indigenous groups make up the majority of the population of the interior, while the Malays (and to a large extent, the Chinese) remained mainly on the coast.
The White Rajahs
For over 100 years before joining the new Malaysian Federation in 1963, Sarawak was ruled by the "White Rajahs" - three generations of the Brooke family. James Brooke was a British adventurer and mercenary who was granted part of Sarawak around Kuching by the Sultan of Brunei, in exchange for putting down pirate raiders. James, and his nephew and successor Charles Brooke, continued to expand Sarawak in this way until it was the size and shape it is today.
Second World War to Joining the Malaysian Federation
Sarawak was occupied by the Japanese in the Second World War, during which time many of its people suffered significantly. Following a brief period of Australian administration after the war, the third and last White Rajah, Charles Vyner Brooke, decided to hand over Sarawak to the British. Sarawak remained a British colony for only 17 years, before joining the Malaysian Federation.
The birth of Malaysian Sarawak was not an easy one - Indonesia's President Sukharno saw the inclusion of Sarawak in the Malaysian Federation as a British plot, and launched an armed conflict which became known as Konfrontasi ("Confrontation"). Indonesian troops and communist guerillas fought a bitter guerilla campaign against Malaysian and British (and Australian) forces in Sarawak. The remains of some of this fighting is still visible on a couple of the trails at Gunung Gading National Park. Konfrontasi effectively ended in 1965 when Sukharno was overthrown, although the last guerillas did not turn themselves in until the 1980s!
Sarawak today is a modern and wealthy State (one of the wealthiest in Malaysia), with revenue coming largely from timber, oil-palm and oil.
|Population & Culture
The population of Sarawak is about 2 million, and consists of a large mix of different peoples. Sarawak is living evidence of a successful multicultural society, with broad tolerance of all groups, and a significant amount of intermarriage between all ethnic groups and across religious divides. The three largest ethnic groups are the Iban, the Chinese and the Malays, although there is a broad range of other indigenous ethnic groups as well.
The largest ethnic group in Sarawak is the famous headhunting Iban (or 'Sea Dayak'), representing about 35% of the population. They traditionally lived in longhouses along the rivers of the interior and practised shifting slash-and-burn rice-farming, but now form a significant part of the population in the major cities as well. Traditionally animist, the Iban were strongly influenced in their daily activities, as well as religious ceremonies, by dreams and bird-augury (listening to the cries of different birds). Now, most Iban are Christian and no longer follow many of the old ways, although Iban are proud of their cultural heritage and a number of traditions do still persist. For example, many Iban still live in longhouses (even if they are made of brick and corrugated iron and have TVs and aircon); and Gawai Dayak, a festival which marked the end of the rice-harvest season, is an official state-wide holiday celebrated by most Iban. There are still a number of longhouses (in particular around Kapit) which retain the old religion. Staying in an Iban longhouse can be a real highlight of a visit to the interior areas. (They haven't hunted heads for most of a century either, in case you were worried.) Like many of Sarawak's indigenous people, the Iban made, and still make, beautiful handicrafts (although this term is a bit demeaning - they really are works of art). These include woven baskets, masterfully carved wooden objects (being an accomplished woodcarver was almost as important an element of manhood as taking a head), and the stunning woven pua' kumbu (ceremonial blankets). The process of weaving pua kumbu is extremely complex, and the patterns on the blankets are full of spiritual potency, inspired by dreams received by the weaver. As with headhunting and woodcarving for men, a woman's prowess in weaving brought her status in the longhouse. Many Iban artefacts (both old and new), along with those of other ethnic groups, can be bought in the shops along the waterfront in Kuching. Also keep an eye out (particularly if visiting a longhouse) for tuak, the Iban home-made rice wine, and cap langkau (cap is pronounced "chap"), a fierce distilled rice-spirit. (If visiting a longhouse, chances are you won't be able to miss them, even if you try!). Check out our Flora and Fauna pages for some information about some of the practical uses which they made of different plants and animals, and the traditional religious significance of these animals and plants.
The second largest ethnic group in Sarawak is the Chinese, at about 30%. There is evidence of a Chinese trading presence in Sarawak going back longer than 1500 years, but most of the current Chinese population migrated from various parts of southern China in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (see History section above). The blanket term "Chinese" is perhaps a bit misleading, as it implies a single coherent cultural group. The Chinese of Sarawak in fact come from a number of different areas and ethnic groups in Southern China, and speak a bewildering variety of languages and dialects, although Hokkien seems to be the language of trade between them. The major Chinese groups include the Foochow and Hakka, Hokkien, Teochew, and there are also some Cantonese. The different Chinese groups ended up specialising in different businesses and trades in Sarawak, for example one dominating the gold and jewellery trade, another watches, another bicycles, and so-on; and different groups predominate in different areas (for example, Sibu is a mainly Foochow town). Many of the Chinese who emigrated in the 19th Century were in fact Christians fleeing persecution in China, but many others are Buddhist and Taoist. The Chinese live primarily in Sarawak's cities, but can be found in all towns and trading posts throughout the state. The small Chinese Museum (the pink colonial-style building on the Kuching waterfront near the James Brooke cafe) gives an excellent introduction to Sarawak's Chinese heritage.
The third largest ethnic group in Sarawak, at about 25% of the population, is the Malays. The Malays have been in Sarawak for a long time, but probably originally migrated from Sumatra. There have also been more recent migrations in historical times; indeed some of the Malay kampungs in Kuching still bear the names of Javanese towns from which the inhabitants originated. The Sarawak Malays speak a different dialect from the Malays of peninsular Malaysia (called Bahasa Sarawak), and have a certain amount of cultural and historical affinities with the Brunei Malays (Sarawak was after all notionally part of the territory of the Sultan of Brunei before James Brooke came along). The Malays traditionally lived along the coasts, where they were fishermen, and the majority of Malays in Sarawak still live along the coast - mostly around Kuching and Limbang, near Brunei. The Sarawak Malays have been Muslim since around the 14th century, and their faith is very important to them. However, it is practised in a more relaxed way than in much of Peninsular Malaysia, reflecting the tolerant multicultural context of Sarawak. The Malay kampungs along the Sarawak river still contain a lot of beautiful traditional wooden Malay houses, and the people are very warm and friendly. This makes walking through the kampung a very pleasant experience (see suggested Kuching Kampung trek.) The Islamic Museum (on Jalan P. Ramlee, just behind the new wing of the Sarawak Museum) is a beautiful former colonial building, which contains a number of interesting displays and provides a good introduction to Sarawak Malay culture and religion.
Other ethnic groups. The rest of Sarawak's population (10%) is made up of a fascinating mixture of other indigenous groups. The more significant of these include the following:
- Bidayuh - The Bidayuh, or 'Land Dayaks' have always been considered a peace-loving group, particularly in comparison with their Iban (or Sea Dayak) cousins. The Bidayuh are dry-rice farmers, who live mainly in the area West of Kuching, especially around Bau and Lundu. (The story about the tiger on Gunung Gading is a Bidayuh story).
- Melanau - The Melanau (whose members include the Chief Minister) are a coastal people, renowned as fishermen. They also established an industry based around sago cultivation and production, although this has now largely disappeared. Many Melanau are now Muslim, and have intermarried extensively with Sarawak Malays, although a number are Christian, and there are also a few who still practice their old animist religion.
- Orang Ulu -"Orang Ulu" is a collective term meaning "people of the interior". It is used to describe a number of inland peoples including the Kelabit, Kayan, Kenyah and others. The Kayan and Kenyah are from the upper Rejang area, and were fierce warriors who fought many bloody battles with the Iban, until they made peace in 1924. The Kelabit live in the highlands at the head of the Baram River, until recently a very inaccessible area. The Kelabit developed sophisticated rice irrigation and had domesticated buffalo from very early, so did not practice shifting slash-and burn cultivation like most of Sarawak's other Indigenous groups. The Kelabit are also notable for being very tall and large of build, and they built many megalithic (large stone) monuments. The World Within, Tom Harrison's classic account of Kelabit culture and his time training them into guerrilla fighters during the second world-war, is a must read. Like other inland groups, the Orang Ulu all live in longhouses, although they may vary slightly in design from group to group. The Orang Ulu make fantastic beadwork, using small beads in brilliantly coloured patterns.
- Penan - There are still a couple of hundred Penan, many of them in Mulu National Park, who are amongst the worlds very few remaining nomadic hunter-gatherers. However, most of Sarawak's Penan have now been settled into permanent communities. The Penan are renowned for their jungle skills, especially for their accuracy with poison-darts and blowpipes. The Penan are also considered to make some of the most beautiful basketwork.
The major cities of Sarawak are Kuching, Sibu and Miri. These are all big modern cities, including all of the conveniences and drawbacks of any modern city, although Kuching in particular is very pleasant and green, and retains much of its historic charm. Most of the treks covered in this website are located in easy distance of either Kuching or Miri.
Kuching - Kuching is located on the Sarawak River about 20km from the sea, on the Western side of Sarawak. It is a vibrant multicultural city with a population of about 500,000. Despite its size, it has a beautiful green riverfront area and lots of parkland, particularly across the river from the city centre, in the new administrative district of Petra Jaya. Kuching also retains many wonderful old architecture - Chinese shophouses, wooden Malay kampung (village) houses, and some glorious (and sometimes contextually incongruous) relics of its colonial past, including Fort Margherita (shown above), the Astana, the Courthouse complex, the Central Post Office, and the Sarawak Museum building. Kuching has been rated by many as the nicest city in Southeast Asia.
The best guide to Kuching is the Official Kuching Guide by Wayne Tarman and Mike reed, put out by the Sarawak Tourism Board, and available for free at most hotels and the Visitors' Information Centre. Wayne Tarman and Mike Reed also run a very informative website, BorneoTravel.com, which includes an online version of the Official Kuching Guide, plus articles, links and a beautiful photo gallery. The STB website also has a range of useful information.
Miri - Miri is located on the opposite end of Sarawak's main stretch of coastline, just west of the border with Brunei. Miri is essentially a modern town, with few old buildings (it was largely destroyed during WWII). It is wealthy from the oil fields located just offshore. It was here that Shell Oil made its start about 100 years ago. Shell got its name from the fact that it originally traded seashells and kerosene. When oil was discovered, Shell had the tankers and financial clout to start to exploit it. Miri was also the first point the Japanese took in Borneo during the war, for those same oilfields.
The STB Website and the Visitors' Information Centre should both have information about Miri, including street-maps. There is no equivalent publication to the Official Kuching Guide in Miri.
Sibu - Sibu is Sarawak's third city, located between Kuching and Miri, about 100km up the mouth of the mighty Rejang river. Sibu is the gateway to upriver longhouses of various Indigenous groups who live along the length of the Rejang and its tributaries. Sibu is, like Miri, essentially a modern city, with little in the way of old architecture - although one of it's most prominent features is a tall Chinese pagoda on the waterfront. Sibu's wealth comes from the timber industry, largely controlled by huge Foochow timber companies (these same companies hold massive logging concessions in Russia, South America and other parts of South East Asia, as well as in Sarawak). As a result of this timber wealth, Sibu is rumoured to have the highest concentration of millionaires in Malaysia!
The STB Website and the Visitors' Information Centre should both have information about Sibu, including street-maps. There is no equivalent publication to the Official Kuching Guide in Sibu.
Although Bahasa Melayu is the official language of Malaysia, you will find that nearly everybody in Sarawak (particularly in the cities) speaks fluent English. Further upriver into the interior and Bahasa Melayu and Iban are more likely to be used in preference.
See our Useful Words page for some Iban and Malay words which you might not find in your standard guidebook.
The currency of Malaysia is the Malaysian Ringgit (RM). At the time of writing, its value is pegged at 3.8 RM to 1 US dollar. Check currency rates at XE.com - The Universal Currency Converter ®.
Most major credit cards are accepted fairly widely in the major cities. There are plenty of money changers in the Airports and cities, but ATMs offer one of the most convenient means of obtaining cash for travellers. Both Kuching and Miri are liberally supplied with ATMs, and most other towns also have them.
Sarawak maintained separate control over immigration when it joined the Malaysian Federation. As a consequence, even if you are coming from Peninsular Malaysia or Sabah, you are required to obtain a separate visa for Sarawak (Malaysians coming from other parts of Malaysia are also required to do so). 1 month social visas are automatically issued at the airport. Extensions (1 month at a time, up to 2 extensions) can be obtained from the Immigration Department with relatively little fuss.
The two major airlines which service Sarawak are the national carrier MAS, and a discount airline, Air Asia. MAS flies direct to both Kuching and Miri from Kuala Lumpur, Singapore and Johore Baru (just across the border from Singapore, and cheaper because it is a domestic flight), and from Kota Kinabalu in Sabah. MAS also has direct flights from Perth in Western Australia. Air Asia, although the cheaper option, only flies via KL.
An alternative is to fly Royal Brunei Airlines to Bandar Seri Begawan in Brunei, from where regular flights link to Kuching. Royal Brunei often has some special deals.
Please refer to the MAS, Air Asia and Royal Brunei Airlines websites for current schedules, fares and booking details.